CeDell Davis: The Last Man Standing

Lots of people talk about being tough when they play the Blues (or Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, and Country for that matter) but CeDell Davis, more than anyone I've ever met in my life, has literally lived and played the hardest Blues around.
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My work as a musician has offered me a unique window into the lives of some of the most extraordinary people on the planet. I've gotten to see some amazing parts of the world, worked with musicians in their own environments, and one of those places is right here in the US, in the Mississippi Delta. I've always felt a strong connection to the Delta, largely because of its rich musical legacy, but also perhaps because my father's side of the family were originally from Fayetteville, AR. They were working class folks, loggers to be exact, and they worked in the logging camps of the Ozark Mountains. My grandmother was actually born in one of those logging camps, in a tent hospital. My father was born in Washington State when the clan moved north to log in the Olympic Peninsula, and that's where I was born too. But I've always felt a genetic pull to the South my entire life, and as a result, I'm on my way back there again to play some shows with one of their great bluesmen.

This is a story about CeDell Davis, the legendary delta bluesman and the toughest man I've ever met. Lots of people talk about being tough when they play the Blues (or Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, and Country for that matter) but CeDell Davis, more than anyone I've ever met in my life, has literally lived and played the hardest Blues around. He's one of the toughest men in music, a fighter who would not quit, a man who never surrendered.

I started working with CeDell back in the spring of 2002, when he was already 50 years into his long music career. I was asked to put a band together to back up CeDell and show respect for the Blues tradition that laid the foundation for almost every form of American popular music that has happened since. I played the drums, Peter Buck of REM played bass, REM sideman Scott McCaughey played guitar, and Joe Cripps of Brave Combo played percussion. We recorded the whole album live over the course of three days and nights in a bar in Denton, Texas and I released the album in the summer of 2003 on my imprint label. The result was the critically acclaimed album When Lightnin' Struck the Pine. We followed up with an extensive tour of the United States using the same back-up band as the album, with CeDell parked in his wheelchair at center stage every night while he clawed his slide guitar and howled the earthiest blues you ever heard. People absolutely loved it.

When Lightning Struck the Pine was a great album title because it evoked the excitement of this delta music when it hits you just right. But lightning is also a metaphor for the day that polio struck a young CeDell when he was just a boy, a young pine that had just started growing into his youth, stunted by a physical handicap and a lifelong struggle that would dog him like a hellhound for the rest of his life.

Every night on that American tour we would play for about 3 hours, playing music that drew from our various bands, as well as CeDell's deep catalogue. At the end of every night, after CeDell had signed numerous CDs (and slugged back numerous shots of whiskey), we would all get back on the bus, which was specially designed for a wheelchair. We'd ride through the night, and on those long drives CeDell would sip his beer (and more whiskey) and tell us tales of the Deep South back in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s. Well, you can imagine. On one of those late night runs, he told us that when he was a young boy, he saw the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson playing at a house party in Helena, Arkansas. CeDell's father had owned a juke joint in Helena, and Robert Johnson had played a lot of shows there during that time, so perhaps the story is true. But regardless, that's about the time when CeDell decided to start playing guitar and singing the Blues, and that's where the real story begins.

Born June 9th, 1926 in Helena, AR, CeDell was raised by a family of sharecroppers who worked at a local plantation. Sharecropping seemed to be the default occupation of many of the legendary bluesmen from that mystical part of the South, and they included Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker who both claimed the title of "Sharecropper-Bluesman." CeDell's mother had been a traditional healer, a woman of the Earth and of the Faith, but she wasn't able to save young CeDell from the back-to-back ravages of yellow fever, when he was nine years old, and the excruciating pains of polio at the age of 10. The polio would hamper his ability to walk without the aid of crutches, and it destroyed much of the flexibility in his hands. CeDell had just started playing guitar when the polio struck, but he learned, through his own ingenuity and sheer grit, how to use a butter knife to fret the strings in place of his gnarled hands. In doing so, he pioneered the butter knife technique that many slide players imitate today.

By the age of 26, CeDell was apprenticing with the great Robert Nighthawk, playing exquisite slide guitar beside Nighthawk for a decade between 1953 and 1963. They played throughout the South, following a circuit that took them to juke joints, house parties, speakeasies, and pretty much any place that would have them. CeDell told us about these gigs, where he'd make "five bucks, a little whiskey, and a steak", for a long night of playing the Blues.

Then tragedy struck again, this time in 1957, when CeDell was playing a gig in East St. Louis. A gunshot in the club resulted in a stampede of patrons and CeDell, already slow on his crutches, fell under the panicked crowd and was trampled underfoot, breaking both of his legs in multiple fractures. After several months in hospital traction, and several months more convalescing at home, CeDell was now bound to a wheelchair, where he sits to this day. But the most important thing to remember about all of CeDell's illnesses and injuries is that, while many other musicians committed slow suicide with excessive alcohol, drugs, and dangerous living, CeDell never fell victim to these vices. Instead, he was challenged by forces beyond his control, yet he refused to concede defeat, focusing on his deep Blues instead. In the process, he became a stronger and more authentic artist, or as he said to tell us during the recording sessions for his most recent album, "I plan on living, man - dying will take care of itself!"

For many years, throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, CeDell lived in relative obscurity. That is, until the early '90s when the famed New York Times music critic, Robert Palmer, rediscovered CeDell and his unique interpretation of the Blues. Palmer set out to produce some songs for CeDell, which became the fantastic album Feel Like Doing Something Wrong, released by the Blues label Fat Possum Records. Fat Possum had been cultivating a strong roster of Blues musicians who were creating a revival in Delta and Hill Country Blues, and this was largely due to the efforts of Bruce Watson and Matthew Johnson, executive producers for the label. Under Palmer's production and Fat Possum's promotion, CeDell began to experience a second act in his storied career. Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono attended his premier in New York City and suddenly CeDell Davis was hip again. But as any veteran musician will tell you, hipness is a fickle thing, and anyone who goes the distance in music is going to be both hip and uncool many times in their career. The only thing that really matters is quality and commitment. Or, as CeDell once told me: "My mother told me not to play the guitar and that devil music or I would surely be going to hell. I told her I'll certainly be going to hell if I don't!"

That's the mark of the authentic man - the one who plays because he is driven to play and for no other reason than that. And fortunately for us he did keep playing, giving us the great albums: Feel Like Doing Something Wrong, The Horror of It All, The Best of CeDell Davis, and When Lightnin' Struck The Pine. Go get those records immediately, they're the real thing, and they'll change how you think about music.

In the 13 years since we made the Lightning album, CeDell was befriended by Greg "Big Papa" Binns and his son Zakk, both Arkansas natives like CeDell, and both pursuing the same love of the Delta Blues. The revitalized CeDell Davis band has been performing at Blues festivals around the South, and has twice toured Europe to sold-out crowds of ecstatic fans, many of whom were seeing the Blues for the first time. The Binns have overseen almost every aspect of CeDell's life, from his care at an assisted living home, to a new motorized wheelchair he received from the Blues Foundation, as well as the custom-fitted hearing aids he recently got from Musicares.

Now I find myself recording with the great man again, but this time he is 88 years old and we are now in Water Valley, Mississippi, deep in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, we are very near the mystical place where the Blues first began to form in the early 1900s, near the Dockery Plantation and the town of Clarksdale, where folk legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the famous crossroads of Highways 49 and 61.

But there are other changes in the man before me. CeDell had suffered a mild stroke, and although he has recovered, his guitar playing was impaired to the degree and he must now focus on his dusty and ancient voice, a voice that is as rich and fertile as the delta he grew up in.

The studio where we are recording is Dial Back Sound, and it was designed and built by the same Bruce Watson who previously reinvigorated CeDell's career. He's helping us do that once again and the atmosphere is wonderful - the walls are hung with old guitars, and the walls are lined with vintage amps that recall the golden age of recording. The studio is also built inside the parsonage of an old Methodist church that stands next door, listing slightly, its whitewashed walls showing their age. But the church has its own haunting story that must be told, because we are in the South, and the South is tainted with horror and darkness.

Back at the turn of the century, when the reverberations of Reconstruction were still echoing through the post-Civil War South, the workers at the local steel mill in Water Valley began organizing to form a union. The preacher of the Methodist church, in his enlightened vision of humanity, allowed the workers to use his church for their organizing meetings. That is, until the day when a strikebreaker thug from the steel mill walked into the church mid-sermon and bludgeoned the preacher with a piece of lumber, killing him where he stood in his pulpit. Like so many other murders in Mississippi, this one went unpunished and the killer walked away free, probably to kill again as his kind are prone to do. But the spirit of the good preacher is with us, and he guides us in these sessions, and we know he is pleased with our work from the subtle signs he gives us from beyond.

So here we are, about to play the music that CeDell's mother scorned, right next to a church that she would have welcomed. The sacred and the profane exist side by side here in Mississippi, as they always have, and as they always will. And that's because Mississippi is one of the most beautiful and otherworldly places you will ever see, but it is also a place of unsolved murders, bodies never found, and dark tales told in hushed whispers. Anyone who has ever visited here will attest to this haunting beauty and the magical spell that ensnares you as soon as cross the state line.

At night, I sleep on the floor of the studio's modest accommodations, and I dream that I am hearing music coming from the trees, beautiful music that seems ancient and in a strange tongue. I ponder this in the morning as I sip coffee on the front porch, because indeed, the blood of my ancestors is in this very mud, it's in the roots of the trees that soak it up into their branches. The branches sing a haunting melody that is only audible in the liminal hours of dusk and dawn, when the fireflies dance and the cicadas croak in harmonic unison. And sometimes, when the sunlight is just right and your spirit is in tune with that great, snaking river, you can hear the music dancing on the small waves that rhythmically lap at the muddy banks of America's greatest river.

As we wait for CeDell to arrive at the studio for our first day of recording, an absolutely torrential rain falls down upon us, making the metal roof of the studio groan with the weight. Lighting and a huge thunderclap follow, louder than any I've ever heard in my life, and it rattles our very bones. Two minutes later the man arrives, and as he comes down the driveway like a rolling, black Buddha he utters the sacred mantra, "Let's make a record"- and we begin.

The producer of the album is Jimbo Mathus, a born-and-raised Mississippian who declined his acceptance to the US Naval Academy to pursue a career in music instead. I reckon he chose the harder path, and Robert Frost would be proud of this road less traveled. Jimbo has earned a solid reputation as the founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and a knowledgeable Bluesman and scholar of the form. He's also made numerous solo albums and was the musical director for one of the greatest blues bands ever, with Buddy Guy and the Sweet Tea album. Jimbo has also played with CeDell on and off over the years, so he knows CeDell's repertoire well. Jimbo plays lead guitar on these sessions, and he laughs and jokes as he coaxes us through a series of Blues classics. The rest of us - myself on drums, Stu Cole on bass, and Greg and Zakk Binns on guitars - follow along as we develop our musical chemistry. We are intuitive and spacious, leaving plenty of room in the music for CeDell's words and Jimbo's guitar flourishes. I play simple, hypnotic grooves that compliment Stu Cole's foundational bass lines and we all laugh easily and frequently - we're having a great time. As Jimbo said to us at the outset, "You gotta have humor in your Blues", and on these sessions, it is in abundance.

Everything is perfect and in balance, and it's all marvelously recorded by engineer Bronson Tew. He uses vintage mics and compressors, many of which were shiny and new when the Blues was America's first popular music. Now the equipment is showing its vintage, but inside the tubes and wires there is a humming, analogue electricity that is warm and embracing. The sacred and the profane, the ancient and the modern, all of it exists side by side here in Water Valley, Mississippi.

CeDell's new album is titled Last Man Standing, for reasons that will become apparent at the end of this story. It will be released worldwide on February 24th on Sunyata Records, but it can be listened to in full in the link above. It was recorded with everyone together live, with CeDell singing along in real time. Only the keyboards and some hand percussion were overdubbed after we picked the keeper takes. We worked like the steel workers who tried to unionize here a century ago, playing for many hours and eating bologna sandwiches and salt peanuts from the local country store. We wash it all back with Coke and iced beer, but on Sunday the beer runs out and we're in Yalobusha County, a dry county. For the first time in my life, I have to make a run across a county line to buy beer on a Sunday afternoon. It is a mission, indeed, it is a holy mission, because CeDell can only sing with an ice-cold beer in his weathered hand. It's exciting to break this religious law, because some laws are just made to be broken, and this is certainly one of them.

Because these are live recordings, the songs on this record do not always start cleanly and perfectly like a sterilized pop song. Indeed, they start and sometimes stumble, even sloppily in places. But eventually they kick in with that distinct and heavy delta swing, and the music, like a familiar smell, ignites a feeling in CeDell. It is perhaps a long-forgotten memory, maybe about a girl he once loved, a man who crossed a moral line, or a funny anecdote that time has almost forgotten. CeDell starts singing when he is sufficiently inspired by the music, and that's because a real song is like life itself - it's messy and it does not start cleanly, nor does it end suchly. A great song, like a great life, happens in spontaneous moments of silence and volume, strength and vulnerability, rage and fiery passion. These songs are CeDell's life, with all the beauty, grace, and messiness of it all.

The standard 12-bar Blues that we've all come to recognize as "the Blues" is really the codified Chicago version of the Blues. But we're not in Chicago, and we are not following any rules. Down here in the delta there is only intuition and magic, so we "jump bars" and skip to new sections when CeDell decides to take us there. And that's because 12 rigid bars do not allow for the emotion to hold sway, and so we follow CeDell, intuitively, respectfully, and we change quickly, like a boxer in the ring. The Delta Blues is a tough musical form, tough as the men and women who invented it, who lived it. It is a hard-swinging form, like a scythe that cuts across the tall grass, in big, arcing swaths, or a chain gang breaking stones in rhythmic unison. You can feel it in this place, its in the soil, and its in CeDell the man.

And man - the stories! In between takes, CeDell waxes about his life and we play quietly behind him as he tells his story-songs. He talks about his days living in the haunted Aristocrat Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas: "If you don't believe in ghosts, stay at the Aristocrat - you'll see 'em!" Or moving to Mississippi and his friendships with Washboard Pete and Doctor Ross The Harmonic Boss, as they listen to Charlie Patton records on a wind up gram-a-phone. He settles an old score with Sonny Boy Williamson, "He paid $500 for that name but he was a thief, a natural born thief!" At one point CeDell talks about being a young boy in Helena and hearing songs sung by former slaves, who were very old but still alive in the 1930s. The room is very quiet as we listen, and we don't play any music for a while. The moment passes, CeDell makes a joke, we all laugh, and the next song starts to unfold and we're all swinging again.

We record for three days straight, and as the last day concludes, Bruce Watson comes to visit CeDell once more. They haven't seen each other in over a decade and they both know these conversations are rare. The talk candidly for an hour in the main room of the studio, drinking beer and joking around with each other. All the other Delta Bluesmen Bruce has worked with have passed on to the other world: Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, Pinetop Perkins - all of them gone from this Earth. CeDell is the last one still alive from that original crew of Blues Masters, and this despite the physical hardships he has endured. Bruce jokes earnestly, "You're the last man standing, CeDell," and they both laugh. "Yeah," CeDell replies with a chuckle, "I guess I am."

All of us are born into this world, and all of us will eventually die. That is the price of being given life. Most of us are born with youth and vigor, some are even born with beauty and charisma. Other blessed souls are born with physical and mental challenges right from the womb, or they are afflicted in their prime and have to adapt to a new way of life. These are the children of God, the children of Obatala, the holy ones who teach us things that cannot be learned by other means. CeDell is one of these blessed ones, gifted with talent, wit, and an earthy humor. He's given us a huge body of songs that teach us through funny stories, historical narratives, and sometimes, withering pain. It is very much the kind of music every American should hear at least once in their lives. It is our first original music, after all.

So here sits the man before me, approaching 90 years of age, yet he still goes out on tour and lays it down for everyone to hear. If you have the opportunity to see CeDell live, please do so, because he is a glimpse into history, myth, and the soul of American music. And that's because the music is in the soil, its in the water, it's in the trees, it's in the blood, and it's in the man, CeDell Davis.

CeDell Davis' new album, Last Man Standing, will be released on February 24th, 2015. He will be playing the following dates with Barrett Martin on drums:

March 6th - The Whitewater Tavern, Little Rock, AR
March 7th - The Hi Tone Café, Memphis, TN
March 14th - The Continental Club, Austin, TX
March 15th - Club DBA, New Orleans, LA
March 18th - The Star Theater, Portland, OR
March 19th - The Crocodile Café, Seattle, WA

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